The Muppet Family Business

Always, there were the art projects. The whimsical tile mosaics on the wall. The Easter eggs and spectacular handmade Christmas ornaments. The animated movies directed and produced by the Henson children under the wings of their inventive parents.

“I grew up in a fabulously creative household,” says Lisa Henson, 51, now CEO of the Jim Henson Company and the eldest of the five Henson siblings. Not surprising, considering her parents, the artists and puppeteers Jim and Jane Henson, created the Muppets with their 1950s series, Sam and Friends. Jim, the beloved Emmy Award-winning television producer, went on to design and perform iconic characters for Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and to produce myriad other TV and film projects.

Both parents really fostered original thinking, says Henson, whose childhood home was a Greenwich, Conn., farmhouse in a bucolic setting where the Henson siblings could romp through the woods, engage in artistic endeavors and discover their own creative interests.

As CEO, Henson now oversees all television and film production at the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles, but her roots in understanding project development started in Greenwich with guidance from her father. “My father was very inclusive. He would involve all of us in what we were interested in,” she says. She recalls going to work with him and spending time in the editing room, learning how stories can be shaped right up to the last moment. Her father would always solicit her point of view. “He made me feel very entitled about my creative opinion,” she says, “because he would give me a voice.”

That kind of upbringing also helped Henson learn how to nurture creativity in others. Before joining the family’s company in 1999, the Harvard graduate was in charge of creative business affairs and production-related matters as president of Columbia Pictures. Before that, she was an executive at Warner Bros. for 10 years, working on such blockbusters as Lethal Weapon and Batman. She was working at Warner Bros. when her father died unexpectedly from complications from pneumonia at the age of 53 in 1990.

 

Challenges and Loss

Jim Henson’s death was not only emotionally difficult; it came at a time when the company was poised for change. The Disney Co. had agreed to buy Henson’s assets for a reported $100 million to $150 million in cash and stock. But after his death, the deal fell apart.

The Henson siblings inherited their father’s company and selected Brian Henson, then 27, to run it. In 1999, Lisa Henson joined her brother, specifically to work on the company’s film slate.

As one of the few remaining independent entertainment companies, the Jim Henson Co. struggled as the entertainment industry consolidated under a few powerful conglomerates. “It’s harder and harder for independent companies like ours,” Brian Henson told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “The huge, vertically integrated companies want a piece of our programs [in exchange for air time] and are paying lower licensing fees.”

In 2000, the family sold the company to EM.TV & Merchandising, a German media group that was expanding quickly and could help the company continue to grow and achieve some of its goals. But then, EM.TV’s stock plummeted, leaving the Jim Henson Company in a holding pattern.

“We were left intact as a company, but we weren’t able to grow or be ambitious at the time,” says Lisa Henson. She and Brian were still working for the company when they saw it was for sale. After witnessing a couple of transactions almost go through, they decided to step in and buy it back in 2003. “We, at that point, had conducted several large transactions as a family,” she says. “We were getting good at coordinating efforts, and when we purchased the company, we had it back in a couple of weeks.”

It was a smaller company than what they originally sold: The Sesame Street characters were now fully owned by the Sesame Street Workshop, where, Henson notes, they rightfully belonged. “It’s the natural home for those characters,” she says. And in 2004, the Walt Disney Company purchased the Muppets.

The brother-sister team initially decided to run the company together and only recently shifted the organization so that Lisa serves as CEO and Brian as chairman, allowing him to do more directing.

 

Pioneering Creativity

Since returning to Henson family ownership, the company is now primarily dedicated to pioneering new projects, not only in creative production but also in technology. One arm of the company, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, is known for its groundbreaking animatronics and digital visual effects, including creature effects for the 2009 movie Where the Wild Things Are and effects for recording artist Lady Gaga.

The company also began investing in digital puppetry, patenting its own system of motion capture, digital animation. The Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, which won a 2009 Emmy Award for engineering development, allows a puppeteer to perform and voice digital characters in real time using three-dimensional, computer-generated images. The company’s first full-scale digital puppetry project was a series of DVDs based on the “Frances Treasury” book series by Russell Hoban. Digital puppetry is also used in the Emmy-nominated PBS preschool program Sid the Science Kid.

Although the company still has some important legacy titles such as Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal, Henson says her father would appreciate the new direction the company is taking because it honors his cutting-edge ethos. “He was a creatively restless individual always looking for something new, not just a new project but a new way of achieving a project,” she says. “He rarely repeated himself. It was not interesting to him to keep doing the same thing.”

Jim Henson wouldn’t be surprised that two of his children are running the company and that the other three are all on the company’s board and pursuing goals that are inherently creative, his daughter says. “He was definitely educating all of us,” Henson says. “I think you could say he was grooming everybody in their own way.” One sister, Cheryl, runs the Jim Henson Foundation, which was started by Jim Henson to promote and develop new works of contemporary puppet theater in the United States. More than 600 grants have been given since 1982.

Lisa Henson is especially hands-on with the company’s two PBS preschool shows: Sid the Science Kid and Dinosaur Train. The challenges in producing these shows range from understanding science curricula and the issues facing education to fundraising, which includes getting sponsorships and grants. “It’s a lot different from the film business, which is more of a fantasy vacuum,” she says. “I learn something all the time.”

 

A Trusted Brand

Henson says the company not only works hard to make quality kids programming, but it also strives to keep pace with new modes of distribution in the dynamic world of multimedia. It has a robust website and original web programming on pbskids.org, including a show for older kids called Wilson & Ditch: Digging America. The company is also in its second season of The Possibility Shop, a web series that airs on Disney Online, offering ideas for creative projects, activities and games that parents can do with their children.

“We’re not just trying to make linear programming,” Henson says. “We embrace a lot of partnerships with other independent companies.” With its emphasis on children’s programming, the company has reestablished itself as a trusted brand for parents. But it has also returned to another pillar of its history, that of alternative or late-night comedy. It’s been given a different brand, Henson Alternative, to keep it separate from the more wholesome kid-specific programming.

“There’s always been that thread going through the company” Henson says. The show that Henson’s parents first developed, years before they were married, was a comedy series with an edge. “They were very young, not even out of college, when they made a big success with Sam and Friends,” says Henson. The show, which aired in Washington, D.C., started out with the puppets lip-synching popular songs and evolved into more formal sketches spoofing well-known TV shows including The Huntley-Brinkley Report. One of Sam’s friends was a lizard-like creature named Kermit who later became the Kermit Frog.

Even as Jim Henson was becoming famous for such defining characters as Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster, he “would be balancing out his Sesame Street programs with something more adult, or even dark,” Henson says. One variety show, The Muppets: Sex and Violence, parodied the proliferation of sex and violence on television.

Most recently, Henson Alternative launched Stuffed and Unstrung, a live puppet improvisational show thathas played in New York and California. “It’s so outrageousand out-of-the-box hilarious,” says Henson, givingcredit to her brother Brian, who developed the project.“It has the humor of improv with excellent puppeteering.”Audience members throw out the storylines tosix puppeteers who compose songs off the cuff and actout irreverent, unpredictable scenes. The puppet actionis projected live on large screens, even as the puppeteersshow off their skills below.

 

‘Like Everybody’s Father’

Jim Henson started his company with Muppets Inc. more than 50 years ago. Since that time, many people have formed a strong attachment to the company and, before he died, to the famous puppeteer. “Many people treated him as a father figure,” says Henson. “He was like everybody’s father.”

Her father’s ability to nurture creativity in others continues to be modeled at the company today. “We offer one of the most creative internships in the business,” Henson says, allowing interns to pursue their own interests, submit ideas or even sit in on staff meetings. And because the company is small, it works especially hard to keep lines of communication open in all departments. “We have a very open and non-territorial attitude around the whole company,” she says. If a project is under way, everybody gets onboard.

Headquartered on the historic Charlie Chaplin lot in Los Angeles, the company also continues to have the family feel that Jim Henson engendered. “In general, there are a lot of kids, dogs and Priuses,” says Henson, who is the mother of two children, ages 10 and 12. “There are always kids here, a bunch of kids who are like a little club.” Henson says. She tries to teach her children about her profession, much like her father did for her. “I think my work’s really interesting, and I try to include them in what I do,” she says.

She also has a great art room at her house and encourages her kid to be comfortable with materials, but she concedes she can’t replicate the amazingly creative environment she grew up in. “It couldn’t be the same,” she says in honor of her father. “We were doing the most extraordinary things.”

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